Fresh Glimpse in 9/11 Files of the Struggles for Survival

NY Times  August 29, 2003

By JIM DWYER

 

Until yesterday, when the Port Authority released its raw historical records from Sept. 11, the two men were remembered from glimpses as the north tower of the World Trade Center was heaving toward collapse. One was short, the other tall. They carried a crowbar, a flashlight and walkie talkies. Beyond that, say some who survived that day, the smoke had blurred their faces and hair and clothes into gray.

With their tools, the two men - Frank De Martini, an architect, and Pablo Ortiz, a construction inspector - attacked the lethal web of obstacles that trapped people who had survived the impact of the plane but could not get to an exit.

At least 50 people stuck on the 88th and 89th floors of the north tower were able to walk out of the building because Mr. De Martini, Mr. Ortiz and others tore away rubble, broke down doors and answered calls for help. Everyone above the 91st floor died.

In the most essential ways, these men, employees of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, pushed back the boundary line between life and death in favor of the living. Both Mr. De Martini and Mr. Ortiz, who continued to help other trapped people, died in the building.

Nothing will alter the basic fabric of Sept. 11, when nearly 3,000 people were killed in Lower Manhattan, but yesterday afternoon, rich, bittersweet and harrowing new details surfaced. The Port Authority released about 2,000 pages of documents, most of them transcribed radio transmissions, from dozens of people in and around the trade center, including several short ones from Mr. De Martini. The New York Times formally requested copies of the records on March 29, 2002, one year and five months ago today, and eventually sued the Port Authority for their release.

"I think it's time for them to be released," said Nicole De Martini, the widow of Mr. De Martini.

Emerging now, as the second anniversary of the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania approaches, the transcripts cover 260 hours. They begin a moment before the first plane struck at 8:46 a.m., and continue for nearly two hours after the final collapse at 10:28 a.m. While some limited transmissions of the city's Fire and Police Departments were made public last year, these are the first from the Port Authority, which built and owned the trade center. They include calls from Port Authority police officers and conversations on two-way radios among civilian employees who worked in building trades in the complex.

The audio of the transmissions, which were recorded in Port Authority facilities at the trade center and in New Jersey, was not made public. The printed transcripts indicate that many parts of the tapes were inaudible, and many others were fragmentary.

The transmissions arose from people in a vertical village - spread across two 110-story buildings, each floor with an acre of space - from the cavernous subbasement of the trade center to nearly the very tops of the towers. Fewer than half of the people speaking are identified.

At their most wrenching, the transmissions reflect the critical difficulties faced by those who survived the plane crashes - at least 1,100 people, an investigation by The Times found last year - yet were unable to escape the buildings. Sometimes fire blocked their paths. Often staircases at the core of the building protected only by sheetrock had become impassable. And at times, they were given mistaken advice to stay in their offices.

Few, if any, of those speaking over the radio appear to realize that the buildings are moments from total collapse. The messages include some desperate calls for help, but many of the transcripts deal strictly with the logistics of evacuations - of saving people in the building, and of survival.

While they echo the most somber and stirring notes of the day, the transmissions also provide fresh views into little-known aspects of the human struggle against a catastrophe that fell beyond the imagination. Among these were the plain words and remarkable deeds of Mr. De Martini, Mr. Ortiz and several of their colleagues. Another set of transmissions are from George Tabeek, a Port Authority official who ran up 22 flights of stairs with firefighters to free a group of authority security workers locked in a secret command bunker.

'Don't Let No People Up Here'

Still other messages come from a man identified only as Rocko, who was on the 105th floor of one tower and reported that he was in great distress. When a radio dispatcher replied that someone would be found to help him, the transcript shows that his response was a warning: "Don't let no people up here. . . . Big smoke!" While it is difficult to say with certainty who Rocko was, among the people known to have been on the 105th floor of the south tower with a walkie talkie was Roko Camaj, a window washer who had achieved modest fame as the subject of a children's book about his work.

Among the other conversations on the transcripts:

A group of about a dozen Port Authority employees on the 64th floor of the north tower were told early on that they should not leave the building. That instruction was not changed until minutes before the tower fell, and they all died.

At Newark International Airport, dispatchers struggled to learn whether one of the planes that crashed into the towers had taken off from Newark. (It had not, but United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark crashed that morning in Pennsylvania.) They also discussed the possibility that four other flights might have been hijacked.

Below the trade center, PATH train operators and dispatchers in the PATH station urgently discussed turning around and returning to New Jersey with the same passengers they had just carried in. They fretted over one stubborn man who would not get on board.

As for Mr. De Martini and Mr. Ortiz, the transmissions disclose only fragments of their efforts, but taken with the accounts of the people they saved, add to a powerful narrative of heroism and loss. Drawing on the transcripts, interviews with 14 of the rescued people and affidavits compiled by Roberta Gordon, a lawyer with Bryan Cave who represents Mr. De Martini's widow, it is now possible to explain how the two men managed to save the lives of others. The transcript hints at reasons why they were unable to save their own, but does not provide clear evidence.

That morning, Mr. Ortiz, 49, arrived at work well before 7. His wife, Edna Ortiz, recalls that he kissed her goodbye before 5 a.m., when he caught a bus from their home in Tottenville to the Staten Island Ferry to Lower Manhattan.

Mr. De Martini, also 49, and his wife traveled together, having dropped their son and daughter off at a new school that morning, Ms. De Martini recalled. She worked in 2 World Trade Center, the south tower, as a structural inspector for an engineering firm. He worked on the 88th floor of 1 World Trade Center as construction manager for the Port Authority. That morning, he persuaded his wife to join him for a cup of coffee and a visit with his colleagues.

At 8:46, when the first plane struck the north tower between the 94th and 99th floors, few on the 88th or 89th floor realized what had happened, but the building swayed so far that they knew something serious had taken place. Anita Serpe, a principal administrator who worked for Mr. De Martini, said she ran back to her office and changed into socks and sneakers. Smoke and fire broke out at one end of the floor. A woman who worked on the floor was badly burned near the elevator bank. Gerry Gaeta, a member of Mr. De Martini's staff, said, "To say the least, it was chaos."

'Frank Had a Calming Effect'

Mr. De Martini began assembling people in a large office at the southwest corner of the building, the farthest from where the plane had hit. He began to give instructions, recalled Joanne Ciccolello, a negotiator in the real estate department.

"Frank had a calming effect," she said. "He organized his staff, to find a way out, to get flashlights."

Those who survive recall that 25 to 40 people were on the 88th floor when the plane hit. While there was some debate in those early minutes about waiting for help, circumstances quickly made that unrealistic. The ceiling had collapsed in the main public corridor, recalls Mak Hanna, a resident engineer who worked on the floor. There was fire in the northeast corridor. The walls around the elevators had vanished. The men's bathroom had disappeared. Around that time, the first radio transmission from the floor was sent out from an unidentified man.

"We're on the 88th floor," he said. "We're kind of trapped up here and the smoke is, uh, is - " The rest of the message was cut off, but a moment or two later came another.

"We also have a person that needs medical attention immediately."

"What's the location?" the dispatcher responded.

"88th floor, badly burned."

Mr. Hanna, Mr. Gaeta, Mr. Ortiz and Mr. De Martini hunted for a way out.

"After about 15 minutes, Frank returned to the corner office," Ms. Serpe said in a statement she provided to the De Martini family. "He was covered with gray soot - even his hair looked gray with smoke - and his eyes were completely red. Frank then told us he found a clear stairwell, but we would have to climb over to it."

Mr. Ortiz and Mr. Hanna were dispatched to move some of the debris. Mr. Gaeta and Doreen Smith accompanied the burned woman, Elaine Duch.

Among those leaving was Ms. De Martini. She said she urged her husband to come along, and he assured her he would be coming down behind her. "How could he come down the stairs and step over his secretary - or anyone?" she asked. "He wouldn't have done that. He did what he had to do."

The floor was all but clear. At the end of the line of people were Mr. De Martini, Mr. Ortiz and Mr. Hanna. "Somewhere, out in the stairwell, we heard banging from upstairs," Mr. Hanna recalled.

On the 89th floor, the biggest tenant was MetLife, which occupied most of the eastern side of the building. Thirteen people were at work when the plane hit. "The building bent so far, I thought we were going into the ocean," said Rob Sibarium, now a managing director for the company.

With fires breaking out, the people from MetLife moved from their office to a law firm down the hall, Drinker Biddle & Reath. The receptionist, Dianne DeFontes, said she was knocked out of her seat when the plane hit.

"I don't know why, but it seemed like everybody on the floor came into my office," she said. A friend, Tirsa Moya, who worked for an insurance brokerage, Cosmos Services America, came in with an older man, Raffaele Cava, who was working by himself in a shipping company.

The public corridor was filling with smoke and flames. "The floor was actually melting," Mr. Sibarium said.

Stairway Door Jammed Shut

Walter Pilipiak, the president of Cosmos, looked for an exit, but any stairway door he could safely reach was jammed shut. "And bone can't break steel on steel," he said. He retreated into his office.

Others tried to fight with meager weapons. Rick Bryan, a lawyer who works at MetLife, actually found an extinguisher and tried to douse a fire in the elevator shaft, then realized the futility. "We were doomed," he said. "We had only minutes."

Nathan Goldwasser, a MetLife employee, recalled the frustration, and then a moment of deliverance.

"We were pounding on those doors," Mr. Goldwasser said, "and almost like a miracle, we heard a voice on the other side yelling, `Get away from the door!' The next thing, there's a crowbar coming through the wall."

Mr. Goldwasser felt sure that it was Mr. De Martini who broke through the wall. Mr. Hanna, who was in the stairway, said it was actually Mr. Ortiz who did it, as he and Mr. De Martini looked on. Mr. De Martini held the door open, and the MetLife employees poured into the stairwell from the law office.

Then Mr. Ortiz noticed a door on the other side of the hall. It was the Cosmos office, where Mr. Pilipiak and his staff were trying to figure out their next move.

"This distinguished-looking man with an earring sticks his head in," Mr. Pilipiak said. "It was Pablo. He said, `Come on, let's go.' "

The 23 people on the 89th floor were launched into the stairways, and toward life. The people on the 88th floor - whether 25 or 40 - were already making their way down.

Mr. Pilipiak says he believes that Mr. Ortiz headed up the stairs, toward the 90th floor. None of the transcripts released yesterday show any messages from Mr. Ortiz, but they are clearly incomplete.

Mr. De Martini was next heard from about a half-hour after the plane hit, perhaps 10 minutes after the people on the 89th floor were freed. He does not identify himself by name, but by his job title, construction manager.

"Construction manager to base, be advised that the express elevators are in danger of collapse. Do you read?"

Only his end of the conversation is recorded. A few minutes later, he returns with another message: "Relay, that, Chris, to the firemen that the elevators - "

There is an interruption in the transmission.

"Express elevators are going to collapse."

He did not give his location, but Gerry Drohan, a colleague who was outside the building, said he also had a radio conversation with Mr. De Martini about the conditions on the 78th floor. Mr. De Martini wanted structural engineers brought up to the floor to look at steel, Mr. Drohan said, but police officers would not let them back into the building.

Mr. Drohan said that Mr. De Martini had asked him to pass his two-way radio to a police official in an attempt to persuade him, but that he was unsuccessful.

None of these conversations appear on the transcripts.

Another reason Mr. De Martini might have gone to the 78th floor was to help free Anthony Savas, who worked with him and was stuck in an elevator. He had sent out repeated radio requests for help. Alan Reiss, the former director of the World Trade Department for the Port Authority, who worked with both men, said Mr. Savas apparently did get out of the elevator, because his body was found in the remnants of a stairwell.

Not everyone who left the 88th floor got out alive. Two other Port Authority employees, Carlos Da Costa and Peter Negron, are heard on the radio, talking about a stuck elevator on the 87th floor.

Edna Ortiz remembers her husband as a very human man. "I'm very proud of what he did." she says. "But I wish he had come home." His children from his first marriage plan a memorial service for him on Sept. 11 in upstate New York, and Tirsa Moya and others Cosmos employees who were saved plan to be there.

She Knew He Had Died

Ms. De Martini said that from the moment she saw the building collapse, she knew her husband had died, and knew it was his character - the one she had embraced and loved - that had kept him in the building. Yet she could feel the ache of loss for herself, and especially for their two children.

She would not use the word "pride" to describe her feelings about what her husband had done, she said, but "true." And after she read the transcripts last week, she realized that also went for many of the people who died alongside him.

"I knew a lot of the people on those transcripts," Ms. De Martini said. "A lot of them did not get out. They all did their share of trying to get to people. They didn't run away. There was a lot of heroism. They had an immense pride in their work. They did everything they could to be helpful, to do whatever could be done to save the people."

 

 

Hope and Heroism Turned to Horror on a Fateful Day

VOICES

NY Times August 29, 2003

By KEVIN FLYNN

 

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey yesterday released transcripts of radio transmissions and phone conversations that it recorded in the moments immediately after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

The transcripts, together with written accounts by Port Authority employees, numbered about 2,000 pages and covered over three hours of recorded conversation, most of it between agency employees, rescue workers and people trapped inside the towers.

They were made public in response to an order by a New Jersey Superior Court judge, who last week ruled that the authority must abide by an agreement it signed in July to settle a lawsuit filed by The New York Times.

The Times argued in court that the records were public and could provide important insight into the day's events, including the way emergency operations had been handled. The authority initially agreed to turn over the records, but it later balked, citing privacy concerns and its sensitivity to the victims' families.

The Port Authority lost 84 employees in the attack, including 37 police officers.

An authority spokesman said that by early yesterday evening, 49 news organizations had requested copies. The Times originally asked for the records 17 months ago through a Freedom of Information request. It filed suit in June.

The families of victims were split on the release. Some characterized it as a painful and unwarranted intrusion into the privacy of those who had died and their survivors. Others said they welcomed the opportunity to learn more about what had happened to family members. Authority officials gave the families an opportunity to view the transcripts before their release, although several declined the invitation.

While some people in the transcripts are identifiable by context or job title or because they identify themselves, many are simply listed as a male or female voice.

The transcribed conversations included phone calls that were made to police desks by people within the towers and radio transmissions between agency personnel, including those who worked at Newark International Airport, at agency offices in Jersey City and at various stations on the PATH train lines.

"In general, they show people performing their duties very heroically and very professionally on a day of horror," the authority's statement said.

On the 64th Floor

Advice to Stay Put May Have Sealed Fates

They had gathered at a natural spot for anyone desperate for information: a Port Authority office on the 64th floor of the north tower that was equipped with video monitors displaying live scenes from the city's tunnels, airports and bridges.

Patrick Hoey, 53, a civil engineer and the manager of the Port Authority's bridges and tunnels, was there, as were a dozen or so other engineers from his office, unsure what had caused the terrible explosion 30 floors above them, unsure what they should do.

"What do you suggest?" Mr. Hoey asked a sergeant at the Port Authority's central police dispatch desk in Jersey City, whom he reached by telephone about 25 minutes after the first plane hit, and shortly after the second plane hit the south tower.

"Stand tight," came the reply from the sergeant. "Stay near the stairwells and wait for the police to come up."

It was a piece of advice that may have cost Mr. Hoey and the other Port Authority engineers their lives.

Thousands of office workers who were below the plane impact floors in the north and south towers survived on Sept. 11.

The mystery for two years now has been why certain pockets of office workers, like those Port Authority engineers on the 64th floor, died, while hundreds who were on higher floors got out alive.

"They will come up, huh?" Mr. Hoey asked the sergeant again, after being told to hang tough and stay put. "They will check each floor? If you would, just report we're up here."

"I got you," the sergeant replied.

The group did as the sergeant suggested. Finally, nearly an hour and a half after the north tower had been hit, Mr. Hoey called in again. "The smoke is getting kind of bad," he told the police desk. "We are contemplating going down the stairwell. Does that make sense?"

This time, the reply was different.

"Yes. Try to get out," the police desk officer said.

"All right. Bye," came Mr. Hoey's response.   

ERIC LIPTON

On the Phones

Many Questions, but Few Answers

Each time the phone rang, another fearful, confused, urgent or sometimes oblivious voice asked for information that the Port Authority police officers at their various command desks mostly did not have.

But whether it was a worried spouse, an NBC News reporter or someone who believed missiles had been fired from the Woolworth Building at the trade center, the callers found officers who, by and large, kept their composure under tremendous duress and passed along the scraps of knowledge they had been able to glean within the constrained universe of their desks.

"Yeah, we heard from him," said a Sergeant Holland, answering a call at the PATH train station in Jersey City from the distressed wife of another Port Authority police officer. "None of our guys are hurt and injured right now," Sergeant Holland said.

"Are you sure?" she asked. "Because he was going up the stairs, he told me."

"I understand," Sergeant Holland said. "I . . . I understand, it's got to be awful, you know."

Sometimes, the sense of helplessness must have been overwhelming. "People stuck in the stairway," said a distressed man on the 103rd floor of the north tower, a place where no one would ultimately survive, in a radio call to the police desk at the trade center itself. "Open up the goddamn doors," the trapped employee pleaded.

Requests for interviews began coming over the phone lines from news organizations within fifteen minutes after the first plane hit the north tower.

"You know what? I can't right now," Sergeant Wozack said to a caller from NBC News. But when the network phoned again, the sergeant apologized for having no insights to share: "I'm sorry, I don't mean to cut short."

When he learned that the south tower had fallen, taking many of his colleagues' lives, Sergeant Wozack struggled for anything but the most elemental response. "Oh, my God," he said to a Captain Devlin, who was on the line with him.

"All right," Captain Devlin said, "say a prayer, brother."   

JAMES GLANZ

In Windows on the World

Doing as She's Told, but It's Not Enough

Christine Olender, an assistant to the general manager at Windows on the World, had already done everything she could. The breakfast guests and restaurant employees had been collected on the 106th floor of the north tower.

The three emergency stairwells had been checked and found to be filled with smoke. She called the Port Authority police command post, down more than 100 flights at the base of the tower.

"We are getting no direction up here," she told the Port Authority police officer who picked up the line, about 15 minutes after the north tower had been hit. "We need direction as to where we need to direct our guests and our employees as soon as possible."

The police officer did not have the most encouraging response. "We're doing our best. We've got the Fire Department, everybody, we're trying to get up to you dear," the police officer told Ms. Olender.

In the more than 1,000 pages of transcripts of Port Authority radio and telephone calls on Sept. 11, 2001, the communications with Ms. Olender, 39, a native of Chicago who lived on the Upper West Side, stand out because of the repeated calls and extended conversations she had as she futilely tried to save herself and the others trapped at Windows on the World. She got through to the police four times, obeying each of their requests, calling back precisely as instructed.

"Hi, this is Christine, up at Windows," she said, telling the police officer this time that she was with about 100 others on the 106th floor. (In fact, about 170 guests and staff members were trapped there.) "We need to find a safe haven on 106, where the smoke condition isn't bad. Can you direct us to a certain quadrant?"

Again, there was only the reassurance that the rescue squads were on the way.

"What's your ETA?" Ms. Olender asked.

"As soon as possible, as soon as it's humanly possible," the police officer said.

The final recorded call from Ms. Olender came only about 20 minutes after the attack. Smoke had quickly accumulated near the top of the tower, as it rose through the building as if it were a chimney. "The fresh air is going down fast! I'm not exaggerating," she said.

"Ma'am, I know you're not exaggerating," the officer said. He added, "I have you, Christine, four calls, 75 to 100 people, Windows on the World, 106th floor."

This was hardly a sufficient answer, at this point.

"Can we break a window?" Ms. Olender continued.

"You can do whatever you have to to get to, uh, the air," the officer told her.

"All right."    ERIC LIPTON

In the PATH System

Calmly Taking Riders Out of Harm's Way

Just minutes after the first plane struck the World Trade Center, the full sense of chaos and panic had yet to overwhelm the PATH station below the twin towers. But the dispatcher on site knew something was seriously wrong as he directed the arrival of thousands of commuters during the morning rush.

"Rich," the dispatcher asked Richie Moran, the system's train master over the radio, according to a transcript of the conversation. "What are you going to do with us? I just unloaded."

Mr. Moran was supervising train traffic on the PATH system from his office in Journal Square in Jersey City.

"We want people out of the station, not in," Mr. Moran told the dispatcher. Load the train up again, he said, and get it out of there.

Over the next 20 minutes, PATH supervisors rerouted several trains that were already en route to the buildings. They directed one train that had already arrived to keep its passengers on board and head back out. Another was told to simply loop through the station and return to New Jersey. The efficiency of their decision-making, which Port Authority officials credit with saving hundreds of lives, was captured in the transcripts released yesterday.

"Take those passengers with you," Mr. Moran told a conductor whose train from Hoboken was approaching the trade center with an estimated 1,000 people.

"I will not open my doors," the conductor responded. "I'm taking them with me."

Passengers who had already gotten off trains were evacuated by the police, and the station emptied quickly. But a final train, with just a conductor and an engineer aboard, was dispatched from Jersey City to pick up a dozen or so PATH workers still there.

"We are going to use you as an evacuation train," Mr. Moran told the conductor. The rescue train ran into a problem, however. A man who had been sleeping on the platform refused to leave.

"You'll have to get the passenger on board. If he doesn't want to get on board, you have to leave him," Mr. Moran told the crew.

The crew asked whether a police officer could be dispatched. Mr. Moran then told them what had already become obvious above ground. "We have an extreme situation at the World Trade Center," he said.

The last train left at 9:11 a.m., 48 minutes before the south tower collapsed. No passengers were stranded in the tunnel by the collapse. The sleeping man was among those evacuated.   

KEVIN FLYNN

 

 

 

------------------------------------------------------------------------